This section contains 1,637 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Critical Review by Denis Donoghue
SOURCE: "Safe in the Hands of the Uncanny," in New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1990, p. 15.
In the following review of Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins, Donoghue notes Fuentes's ability to present bizarre, extraordinary elements in his fiction in a manner that is "at once objective and arbitrary."
The long short story is a form of fiction Carlos Fuentes cherishes, and here we have five new instances of the genre: "Constancia," "La Desdichada," "The Prisoner of Las Lomas," "Viva Mi Fama" and "Reasonable People." Each of them is bizarre, a tale lingered over by the teller to the point at which, if he were to stay with it a moment longer, he would have to explain everything, and ruin it. Nothing is explained. We may interpret each story as we choose, but we cannot call on the teller to endorse our choice.
Mr. Fuentes has shown himself willing to write a straight-forward novel. In The Old Gringo (1985) nothing affronts one's ordinary sense of time and place. We are allowed to find the story plausible, the characters credible, the style responsive to high emotions: love, hate, vengeance and the gringo's determination to die in Mexico. But Mr. Fuentes writes such a book as if with one hand. His major fictions are projects of the bizarre and the uncanny. He is not content for long to gratify one's sense of the usual, or one's prejudice in its favor. I would not like to be asked to say what precisely happens in Aura (1962).
In Mr. Fuentes's fiction, a sense of the uncanny is always enforced by a presentation at once objective and arbitrary. Phenomena are never used to embody or illustrate any official pattern of meaning, least of all the supposed relation between a cause and a consequence. In "Reasonable People," the final story in this collection, one of the Velez brothers steps onto a patio and sees nine women and a child: "In one hand, each holds an umbrella, in the other, they carry various objects, shielding them from the rain. The first a basket and the second a shepherd's staff. The third a bag full of teeth and the fourth a tray holding bread that's been sliced in two. The fifth wears bells on her fingers and the sixth has a chameleon clasped in her fist. The seventh holds a guitar and the eighth a sprig of flowers. Only the ninth woman does not hold an object—instead, she holds the hand of the drenched child with his eyes closed."
It is vain to ask: why nine? Or: who are these women and why do they spend an hour walking in circles in the rain? Mr. Fuentes's authority is absolute. He is peremptory in leaving his readers to their own devices, trusting them not to be dolts. He compels them to recognize that it is possible to maintain a relation to fictive things, other than that of belief. One's interest is not limited to the true or the probable.
In "La Desdichada" a model for Mr. Fuentes's peremptoriness is the poem by Gerard de Nerval to which the title refers. In the story, two students in Mexico City steal a wooden mannequin from a shop window and start endowing her with life. They call her La Desdichada, "the outcast." One of them muses: "La Desdichada does not smile; her wooden face is an enigma. But that is only because I am disposed to see it that way, I admit. I see what I want to see and I want to see it because I am reading and translating a poem by Gerard de Nerval in which grief and joy are like fugitive statues, words whose perfection is in the immobility of the statue and the awareness that such paralysis is ultimately also its imperfection: its undoing."
In the poem, the famous second line, "Le Prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie"—the Prince of Aquitaine of the ruined tower—is authoritative in the degree to which it silences our question: it is imperturbable, immobile. There is no further explication of it that will help; no interrogation embarrasses the line. Even to speak of its imperfection, its undoing, as Mr. Fuentes's student does, leaves it uncompromised. So, too, the story; it is what it is, it does not ask to be loved upon any extraneous consideration.
To clear a space for the uncanny, Mr. Fuentes dislodges the privilege we normally concede to anything that has occurred. As amateur historians we italicize what has happened and think it superior to all the events that didn't come into being. But Mr. Fuentes's readers are impelled to give up that favoritism, and to care just as much for what has not taken place as for what has. Terra Nostra (1975) has Philip II of Spain marrying Elizabeth of England, America being discovered a hundred years later than the standard histories say, and sundry characters being fetched from other novels to play further parts in this one.
Near the end of that Utopian fiction, one of the characters introduces another to his great Theater of Memory: "Look; see upon the combined canvases of my theater the passage of the most absolute of memories: the memory of what could have been but was not; see it in its greatest and least important detail, in gestures not fulfilled, in words not spoken, in choices sacrificed, in decisions postponed, see Cicero's patient silence as he hears of Catiline's foolish plot, see how Calpurnia convinces Caesar not to attend the Senate on the Ides of March, see the defeat of the Greek army in Salamis, see the birth of the baby girl in a stable in Bethlehem in Palestine during the reign of Augustus." And the same character tells King Philip: "Every identity is nurtured from all other identities … Nothing disappears completely, everything is transformed; what we believe to be dead has but changed place. What is, is thought."
It follows, though not as night the day, that in his stories Mr. Fuentes introduces a narrative wobble instead of the stability expected. In "Reasonable People" he entrusts the story not to the brother who takes part in it but to the other brother, who deduces what happened from appearances that are not necessarily reliable. In "Viva Mi Fama," he confounds chronology, making Goya and John Dillinger contemporaries. In Zona Sagrada (1967) he had put the reader in the hands of a lunatic.
These procedures are normally accounted for by describing Fuentes as a post-modernist. This is not a term in chronology or literary history. It usually indicates that the writer regards every experience as belated, already formed when we come to it, that spontaneity or "firstness" is an illusion. The writer therefore exploits a relation, likely to be ironic or otherwise subversive, to an established cultural formation or an earlier genre; the historical novel, the epic, science fiction. Claims to immediacy or resemblance to experience are voided by a proliferation of allusions. But these procedures are not enough to distinguish post-modernism from modernism. Line 430 of one of the supreme poems of modernism, "The Waste Land," reads: "Le Prince d'Aquitaine a la tour abolie." "The Waste Land," like Pound's "Cantos" and Joyce's "Ulysses," is a tissue of allusions, a confession of belatedness.
So we have to add a further consideration, which we owe to the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard. In the major works of modernism, however belated, the writer still hopes to tell a story, a comprehensive narrative of life as such, a myth not necessarily floating free of history but unintimidated by the eventfulness of the past. Myths are meanings and values in narrative form. A post-modernist writer, by contrast, doesn't believe that one story is more comprehensive, more telling, than another. Such a writer is promiscuous in the presence of stories; none of them is credited with explanatory power. The third woman carrying a bag of teeth might just as well be the tenth woman carrying a basket of flowers so far as explanatory ambition is in question. Alternative history is just as valid as the official version, anachronism is not a disability, the second chance is no worse than the first, among the moods the pluperfect subjunctive is just as good as the past perfect.
It is possible to feel irritated by such assumptions in postmodernist writing, or by any device that makes the words on the page seem willfully arbitrary or weightless. Long before the post-modern condition was felt or named, Henry James was exasperated by Anthony Trollope's habit of "reminding the reader that the story he was telling was only, after all, a make-believe." Mr. Fuentes doesn't let the reader off as lightly as that. Indeed, he persuades the reader to care for the characters, to worry about them, and only then to find that the worry has to do the best it can in the increasing density of bewilderment and the uncanny. In "Constancia" we care for Dr. Hull, an aging surgeon, man of letters, bibliophile, Constancia's husband, and wish he could be allowed to remain pretty much as we first see him in Savannah, heavy in the reality he takes for granted. But he gets displaced from that solid presence.
James said of his ghostly or supernatural stories that he wanted the mutations and strange encounters to loom through some other history, "the indispensable history of somebody's normal relation to something." In Mr. Fuentes's new stories, there is no guarantee that anyone's normal relation to anything will survive the uncanny to which it is exposed. In "La Desdichada," by the time one of the students comes to "kill" the wooden mannequin "because she refused to love me," he has moved beyond any of his normal relations to anything. Besides, in giving that reason for killing her, he says in the same breath that the reason is not true.
This section contains 1,637 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)